A Separation is a taut and enthralling film, compelling in its very realism. Although there is a complexity of narratives, including a court drama and an “everything is a version of something else”/who is telling the truth element, it is ultimately a film about a broken home. How stereotype-shattering that a divorce film be Iranian—all the more because the prevailing Western notion of divorce in a Muslim country is either as something as easily levied against women as a male declaring “I divorce you” three times or as something so verboten as to never take place. A Separation’s Iran is a modern, complex [and contradictory] place—a cosmopolitan landscape of traffic jams and women-initiated divorces. Yet, it is also a place of profound class fissures, economic strife, and a religiosity that, as we see in the film, may not be as top-down and imposed as the prevailing notion. Razieh, the woman Nadir hires to take care of his Alzheimer’s-ailing father, is so devout, she calls the mullah to inquire whether her nursing duties, which include changing a man, are a sin. One gets the sense that swearing on a Quran has an incomprehensible onus and gravity—even when she could desperately use the blood money for her family, her spiritual concerns trump all others.
A Separation is also a film about family. There are no one-dimensional “bad guys” to be found and the characters are compelling and universal. Nader’s devotion to his father and his daughter paints him as a man struggling, and at times failing, to keep his family together, a far cry from the patriarchal despot archetype. It is through Termeh, the 11-year-old daughter’s eyes, that the pain of the rift is most palpable as she stoically struggles with the ever-shifting tides and waves that buffet what were once their very normal lives. The theme of fighting vs. running away from things is at the core of the conflict of the film. Without resorting to fantastically left-field or implausible plot twists, A Separation is an absolutely mesmerizing portrayal of playing along with an increasingly upped ante of emotional tolls that life can realistically be.